What's intriguing to me about Daniel Johnston isn't the fact that he has bipolar disorder; it's the tension that the disease implicates in his music. I can't help but feel conflicted as to whether or not my enjoyment stems from an appreciation of its actual craft or the story behind it all. Do I like his music because I associate it with some constructed sense of "authenticity"? Does being culturally uninhibited have anything to do with what people describe as "natural" or "truthful" or "real"? Would I like Daniel Johnston's music as much if it weren't equipped with the story of his bipolar disorder? These elements are difficult to ignore when attempting to negotiate an honest relationship with Daniel Johnston and his music.
Thing is, my answers are immaterial. The questions are warranted for any artist who is auto-described (ridiculously) as a "genius," credited mostly to the disease, but musical taste is fluid. What Daniel Johnston's music does for me is point to this rarely discussed, dynamic aspect of taste. As much as I have championed so-called avant-garde music, its self-imposed avoidances are actually found and embraced in Daniel Johnston's music, and it's simply refreshing to my ears. His music's actually expressive of something, and unabashedly so, helping me once again celebrate subjectivity rather than fight it. Sure, it can often be trite and predictable, and sure you could blame it on his disease, but any sort of righteousness deflates under serious challenge: the meaning of Johnston's music is and always will be malleable.
It's hard to articulate an appreciation of "simple pop songs" without resorting to surfacy observations. Since Don't Be Scared -- originally self-released on cassette and known as Johnston's second full-length release -- comes with so many endearing qualities, perhaps the artificial superficiality is really what's important. From the slapdash "The Story of an Artist," to the Dylan-borrowing "I Had Lost My Mind," to the gloomy "Going Down," what's notable is the intent, the execution, the clarity. Never mind theoretical arguments over aesthetics; this is a documentation that's actually lucid. It's vibrant, colorful, and self-indulgent in the best possible way, all elements to which pop music often aspires and would likely achieve if it weren't so invested in financial concerns.
Since virtually all the songs feature a desolate Johnston on piano, Don't Be Scared lacks the unique chord organ blues of Yip/Jump Music or the vampirific soundworld of 1990, but it showcases how Johnston's creativity and talent shouldn't automatically be attributed to his disease. And with the decidedly off-kilter intro of "Mother Mom Said," the improvised, disconnected vocals on "Stars on Parade," and the downright bizarre "Something More" -- qualities artists now adopt in order to get their albums labeled "quirky" or "idiosyncratic" -- you really begin to realize how the underlying narrative of Johnston obscures more than clarifies anything. So, what now? Do you consider these attributes transitory and ignore or dismiss them? Do you chalk it all up to his bipolar disorder? Fuck that. Daniel Johnston's musical and cultural worth cannot be reduced so simply. As much as the bipolar disorder may have hypothetically provided or denied Johnston, it can't take away the meaning that I discern from the music.